‘The Pope’ of Dusi paddling dies in farming accident
FAMILY, friends and colleagues who are mourning the death of legendary KwaZulu-Natal canoeist, Graeme Pope-Ellis, have described him as a generous and humble man.
Pope-Ellis, 62, who won the Dusi Marathon a record 15 times, died in an accident on Thursday evening at his Bishopstowe far m, outside Pietermaritzburg.
He was driving his tractor while ploughing sugarcane when it rolled on him, killing him.
A small fire subsequently started which alerted a tenant on the property. Pope-Ellis sustained neck and head wounds and burns on his back.
Ray de Vries, spokesman for the Dusi, said he last saw PopeEllis last week when he rode the Unlimited Dusi Mfula MTB event.
He described “The Pope”, as Pope-Ellis was affectionately known, as a South African sporting icon, for his 15 Dusi wins and the fact that he had paddled the epic race 46 consecutive times, starting in 1965. But he said it was Pope-Ellis’s humility and generosity that the canoeing community would miss the most.
De Vries said Pope-Ellis had taken countless youngsters under his wing, on training and tripping sessions on the river to teach them the intricacies of the race.
Martin Dreyer, whose canoeing success was moulded by Pope-Ellis, said: “When I arrived on the scene in 1998 with serious plans to get to the top ten, no one really wanted to help because I was a threat, but not Graeme. He took me into his home for months, and showed me everything he knew about the race.
“I couldn’t believe it. There I was, a kid reading The Pope’s autobiography in total awe, and he was teaching me.”
Dreyer said he had made a pact with Pope-Ellis that he would do the Dusi with him when he was 70. “Sadly I am not going to be able to honour that deal,” he said.
Tim Cornish, who won four Dusi doubles title with PopeEllis, was yesterday still reeling in shock at the news. “He was absolutely meticulous in his preparation. I only had to train and paddle with him. Tactics, local knowledge, equipment and preparation were all taken care of,” he said.
Rick Whitton, who won the Grand Master title in the 2008 and Hansa Powerade Dusi with Pope-Ellis in a record time, said: ”He was the kind of guy that you just assumed would live forever. He was so positive about everything, whether it was his wife and family, his business, his sport or his friends. In all the years I knew Graeme, I never once saw him fail to make time for a stranger or a youngster and a novice paddler who wanted to chat to him or ask a question,” said Whitton.
Current Olympian and former winner of the Hansa Powerade Dusi junior title, Shaun Rubenstein, said: “I was the proudest guy in the world when I used to be taken to my judo competitions by the Dusi King. It was when I decided to give the Dusi a shot at 15 that he really took me under his wing and taught me so much.”
Rubenstein said Pope-Ellis and his wife, Wendy, were like parents to him. “They opened their homes and their hearts to me. When I won the world marathon championships, the first person I phoned from France after my parents was Graeme Pope-Ellis.
“Graeme made me who I am today as a paddler. He taught me the work ethic I follow today, and, even though he wasn’t a sprinter, he took such a keen, enthusiastic interest in my career. I can still hear that croak in his voice when I phoned him to tell him that I had qualified for the Olympics,” added Rubenstein.
Pope-Ellis is survived by his wife Wendy and his son Lee.